Bio-Ethics Bites

The Wellcome Trust has provided specific funding to the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics to enable David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton (of Philosophy Bites) to produce a podcast series of 10 interviews with leading influential thinkers on bio-ethics, titled ‘Bio-Ethics Bites’. This series of interviews, representing various ethical perspectives tackling controversial subjects arising out of recent scientific advances, is freely available. All 10 interviews are now available below and iTunes U.

If you have enjoyed Bioethics Bites, tell us what you think via our online survey (max 5 minutes). Your participation is much appreciated and will help us develop future series.

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PATRICIA CHURCHLAND - What Neuroscience Can Tell Us About Morality (MP3)

Patricia Churchland

What can science tell us about morality? Many philosophers would say, ‘nothing at all’. Facts don’t imply values, they say. you need further argument to move from facts about us and about the world to conclusions about what we ought to do. For example, most humans are altruistic - they genuinely care about the well-being of friends and family and to a lesser extent even of strangers – they’ll give money to charity to help people they’ve never even met. Suppose science gives us a compelling scientific explanation for why we’re altruistic. Does that tell us whether we should be altruistic?

Professor Patricia Churchland is a well-known neurophilosopher based at the University of San Diego, who works at the intersection of neuroscience and philosophy.


MOLLY CROCKETT - Brain chemistry and Moral Decision-Making (MP3)

Molly Crockett

A train is out of control, heading towards 5 people who face certain death. You are on a footbridge next to a large man. If you push him onto the rail you can stop the train and save the 5 lives, at the expense of one. There is no other way to save the 5 people. What would you do? Dr. Crockett's research has shown that the answers given to this question is strongly affected by levels of serotonin.

Dr. Molly Crockett studies the neurobiology of morality and altruism, collaborating with economists at the University of Zürich and neuroscientists at University College London as a Sir Henry Wellcome Research Fellow. She studied psychology as an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles, and completed her PhD in neuroscience as a Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge.


HANNA PICKARD - Responsibility and Personality Disorder (MP3)

Hanna Pickard

If someone caught me shoplifting, and I was later diagnosed with kleptomania, should I be held responsible? Should I be blamed? There’s a growing body of knowledge in psychiatry and neuroscience about why people think and behave the way they do. And according to one school of thought, as our knowledge expands, so the space for responsibility contracts. Hanna Pickard is not from that school. She believes we can, at one and the same time, diagnose a disorder and hold the person with that disorder responsible.

Dr. Hanna Pickard is an Oxford based philosopher and therapist, and the holder of a Wellcome Trust fellowship examining the nature of responsibility and morality within personality disorder.

TIM LEWENS - Selling Organs (MP3)

Tim Lewens

Every day people die in hospitals because there aren’t enough organs available for transplant. In most countries of the world – though not all – it is illegal to sell organs. Governments insist that the motive for donating organs has to be altruistic, it can’t be financial reward. The idea of being able to sell body parts makes many people uneasy. But is it time for a policy change: should we be permitted to flog one of our kidneys on ebay, say, for $10,000. If not, why not? Tim Lewens is a Cambridge philosopher and a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

Dr Tim Lewens is a Senior Lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University, and a Fellow of Clare College. He is a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, and the author of various books and academic articles including Darwin (Routledge 2007), a philosophical study of Darwin and Darwinism. He has written and lectured extensively on evolution. He has been a Governor of Exeter School (nominated by the University of Cambridge) since 2007. In 2008, Lewens was one of eleven recipients of the University of Cambridge's Pilkington Prize for the quality of his teaching. 


JONATHAN WOLFF - Political Bioethics (MP3) 

Jonathan Wolff

What drugs should be available on the NHS? Why should they be available, and who should have access to them? What are the social determinants of overall health beyond individual doctor- patient relationships? Jonathan Wolff, Professor of Philosophy at UCL and member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics discusses political bioethics, population level bioethics and distribution of resources.

Jonathan Wolff is Professor of Philosophy at UCL. His work has largely concentrated on issues of distributive justice, with a particular interest in the relation between theory and policy. Recently he has worked on topics such as disadvantage, disability, risk and the measurement of health, and is principal applicant on the AHRC funded project The Ethics of Risk. He is a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, and of the Nuffield Council Working Party on Personalised Healthcare. Formerly he was a member of the Gambling Review Body, the Nuffield Council Working Party on the Ethics of Research Involving Animals, and the Academy of Medical Sciences Working Party on Brain Science and Addiction. He is currently advising an inter-departmental government committee on the valuation of life and health.


ONORA O’NEILL  - Trust (MP3)

Baroness Onora O'Neill

Radically new techniques are opening up exciting possibilities for those working in health care – for psychiatrists, doctors, surgeons: the option to clone human beings, to give just one example. Who should determine what is allowed and what prohibited? And what sort of consent should doctors have to have from patients before treatment. Is the trend towards consent forms helpful? Or should we trust doctors to make good decisions for us. For many years now, philosopher Onora O’Neill, formerly principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, has been thinking about the issue of ‘trust’: trust is vital in most areas of human interaction – but nowhere more so than in health and medicine.

Baroness Onora Sylvia O'Neill is a philosopher at the University of Cambridge and a crossbench member of the House of Lords.  She studied philosophy, psychology and physiology at Oxford University, and went on to complete a doctorate at Harvard, with John Rawls as supervisor. O'Neill has written widely on political philosophy and ethics, international justice, bioethics and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.  Across various works, O'Neill has defended and applied a constructivist interpretation of Kantian ethics heavily influenced by John Rawls, emphasizing the importance of trust, consent and respect for autonomy in a just society. She has written extensively about trust, noting "that people often choose to rely on the very people whom they claimed not to trust" and suggesting that we "need to free professionals and the public service to serve the work towards more intelligent forms of accountability...[and] to rethink a media culture in which spreading suspicion has become a routine activity."


NICK BOSTROM - Status-Quo Bias (MP3)

Nick BostromSuppose a genetic engineering breakthrough made it simple, safe and cheap to increase peoples’ intelligence. Nonetheless, if you asked the averagely-intelligent person on the Clapham Omnibus whether we should tamper with our genes to boost our brains, he or she might recoil at the notion. Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, suspects that this reaction may be a result of what he calls ‘status-quo bias’.

Nick Bostrom is Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. He previously taught at Yale University in the Department of Philosophy and in the Yale Institute for Social and Policy Studies.; He has more than 200 publications to his name, including three books: Anthropic Bias (Routledge, 2002), Global Catastrophic Risks (OUP, 2008), and Human Enhancement (OUP, 2009).


PETER SINGER - Life and Death (MP3)  

Peter Singer

If a patient decides she doesn’t want to live any longer, should she be allowed to die? Should she be allowed to kill herself? If a patient is no person to decide – perhaps she’s in a coma – then should somebody else be able to decide to kill her? Who? Is there a moral difference between killing and allowing someone to die? And is the role of the doctor always to prolong life? Peter Singer, of Princeton University, is one of the world’s leading bio-ethicists, and has been reflecting on life and death issues for four decades.

Peter Singer first became well-known internationally after the publication of Animal Liberation in 1975. Since then he has written, co-authored, edited or co-edited more than 40 other books, including Practical Ethics; The Expanding Circle; How Are We to Live?, Rethinking Life and Death, The Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason) and most recently, The Life You Can Save. Outside academic life, Peter Singer is a member of the Leadership Council of Oxfam America, a Vice-President of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (UK),and a member of the Advisory Board of In 2005 Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.


JEFF McMAHAN - Moral Status (MP3) 

Jeff McMahan

A stone on the beach, we assume, has no moral status. We can kick or hammer the stone, and we have done the stone no harm. Typical adult human beings do have moral status. We shouldn’t, without a very good reason, kick a man or woman. Often, contentious moral issues, such as embryo research, or abortion, or whether to turn off a life-support machine, turn on disagreement about moral status. So the key questions are, who or what has moral status, and why? Jeff McMahan, of Rutgers University, has spent years trying to unravel the answers…..

Jeff McMahan is Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University. He was previously a fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge University and taught at the University of Illinois. His principal interests are in medical ethics and international ethics. He is the author of The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life (Oxford University Press, 2002) and Killing in War (Oxford University Press, 2009). A collection of his papers, The Values of Lives, is forthcoming from OUP, as is another book called The Morality and Law of War. He has published papers on abortion and prenatal injury, infanticide, the ethics of cloning, the ethics of prenatal screening for disability, stem cell research, genetic enhancement, the distinction between killing and letting die, and brain death.


JULIAN SAVULESCU - Designer Babies (MP3) 

Julian Savulescu

The term ‘designer baby’ is usually used in a pejorative sense – to conjure up some dystopian Brave New World. There are already ways to affect what kind of children you have – most obviously by choosing the partner to have them with. But there are others too: a pregnant mother can improve her baby’s prospects by not smoking, for instance. With advances in genetics, however, there will soon be radical new methods to select or influence the characteristics of your progeny: not just physical characteristics, like height or eye colour, but intellectual capacities, and capacities linked to morality – such as how empathetic the child will be. The big question is how much freedom parents should have to make such selections. Julian Savulescu of Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, believes that if we can genetically alter the next generation, not only should we be free to do so, it may even turn out that in some circumstances we have an obligation to go ahead and do it.

Julian Savulescu is Director of both the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics and the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. He is a recognised world leader in the field of practical ethics. He is the author of over 290 publications, has given over 240 international presentations and in 2009 was selected as winner of the ‘Thinkers’ category of The Australian’s Top 100 Emerging Leaders awards. He very much bridges the gap between academic and public life, having trained as a medical doctor and worked in genetics before becoming a philosopher, one of his visions for the development of applied ethics is to encourage public debate


About the interviewers:

David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton co-host Philosophy Bites, a philosophy podcast consisting of a series of 15 minute interviews with top philosophers giving a brief introduction to an area of their work (see: This philosophy podcast has had over 8 million downloads to-date. Julian Savulescu’s podcast interview ‘the Yuk Factor‘ on Philosophy Bites received 25,000 downloads in its first week, above the average for this very popular service. Dave Edmonds has also conducted special podcast interviews with research members of the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, talking about their areas of interest, which are available at: [link to relevant Uehiro website page]. David Edmonds also produces a very popular Radio 4 programme on Experimental Ethics, presented by Professor Janet Radcliffe-Richards (Consultant Researcher and Distinguished Research Fellow of the Uehiro Centre).

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Neuroscience studies the brain and mind, and thereby some of the most profound aspects of human existence. In the last decade, advances in imaging and manipulating the brain have raised ethical challenges, particularly about the moral limits of the use of such technology, leading to the new discipline of neuroethics. The Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, led by experts from ethics, philosophy of mind, neuroscience, neurology, psychiatry and legal theory, will be the first international centre in the UK dedicated to neuroethical research.



Neuroethics is arguably the most rapidly advancing and exciting field of research in biomedical ethics today because it addresses head-on the two most important subjects relevant to who we are and how we live: the brain and mind.